The Firefly Cloak
Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
Publication Date: 10/2/2012
Advance Praise for Firefly Cloak
After an experimental dip into magical realism in A Gracious Plenty (1997) and a long silent spell, Reynolds' newest novel delivers more of the rich southern atmosphere and coming-of-age drama that made The Rapture of Canaan (1995) an Oprah Book Club selection and best-seller. In a tautly structured opening sequence, Tessa Lee and her toddler brother go camping with their mother; next morning, the children have been abandoned, left with only their mom's firefly-patterned bathrobe and a phone number (their grandparents') scrawled on the baby's back. When her brother dies, Tessa Lee, now a teenager, sends three generations of women reeling by attempting to reconnect with her mom. Alternating among the perspectives of Tessa Lee, her down-and-out mother, and her often-misguided grandmother, Reynolds develops her characters to a slow-simmered richness, finding gentle metaphors in the unassuming details of their lives: fireflies assume a talismanic significance for Tessa Lee, who associates their erratic, elusive nature with her mother; Granny Lill's tacky crafts hobby comes to seem a noble act of creation in the face of enormous loss; the swooping canals of a water park offer a kind of rebirth. Stories spun around maternal abandonment and reconciliation are plentiful, but Reynolds gives this one a satisfying literary heft. -Jennifer Mattson
YA: Though the drama is relatively quiet here, many teens will connect with Tessa Lee's combined ferocity and vulnerability. JM.
Synopsis: From the book jacket
Taken from Crown Publishing Catalogue, Spring 2006
When 8-year old Tessa Lee and her brother, Travis, are abandoned in a campground by their desperate mother and her boyfriend of the moment, their mother leaves them only two things: a phone number printed in Magic Marker on Travis's back and her favorite housecoat, printed with tiny fireflies, that she places over her sleeping children. The phone number belongs to the children's grandparents, who are notified by the police and come for them. For Tessa Lee the housecoat becomes totemic, a cloak that provides a connection to the past and the beautiful mother she lost.
When word arrives many years later that Tessa Lee's mother has been spotted working at a pavilion on a seaside boardwalk, the teenager sets off on a dangerous and desperate journey to try to recover what it is she has lost.
Steeped in the rich tradition of Southern writers like Carson McCullers and Sue Monk Kidd, The Firefly Cloak is a vivid coming-of-age novel about family, loss, and redemption.
From the author of the New York Times #1 bestseller THE RAPTURE OF CANAAN, comes the long-awaited new novel, FIREFLY CLOAK, the haunting story of young girl's journey to find the mother who abandoned her, set against the backdrop of the Deep South, with all its quirkiness and charm.
Read an Excerpt
The night before she lost her momma, Tessa Lee camped out in a two-roomed tent with her momma, her little brother Travis, and a crooked-nosed man named Goose. Goose had picked them up that morning at a grocery store in South Hibiscus and loaded their bags into the back of his pickup while her momma gave Tessa Lee a shove into the cab. When Travis was settled beside her, and when her momma had rooted in and slammed the door, Goose said, "Let's skedaddle," and they rattled through the parking lot, waving goodbye to the old men who sat out front on benches and waited for the ice-cream truck.
It was the first time Tessa Lee had ever heard that word, "skedaddle," and she sang it over and over to a tune she made up herself. She sang it to Travis and grabbed at his pudding-belly and made him laugh until her momma told her to quit.
"She ain't bothering me," Goose said. But Tessa Lee shut up anyway.
She couldn't stop singing it in her head, though. As they bumped their way out of town, Tessa Lee studied the rear-view mirror and the dusty ghosts poofing up behind them. "Skedaddle, skedaddle," she mouthed to the ghosts.
They'd left behind her bicycle and her Weebles, her Spirograph and her books. Her momma had said she wouldn't need toys while she was on vacation, but as they drove along hot roads that faded into wavy black seas, it seemed strange to Tessa Lee that she'd be going on vacation with a man she'd never met before. He was friendly enough, and let her steer for a long time in Alabama, but while Travis was steering, she turned around and saw that the wind had blown over a bag of her clothes. Her winter coat had spilled out, and the furry hood shivered like a kitten against the tail-gate.
Tessa Lee shivered too, in spite of the thick heat, and said to her momma, "Must be going on vacation in the North Pole if I'm gonna need my fur coat when I get there," and Tessa Lee's momma shook her head and lit another smoke.
"Smart girl," Goose said.
"If she's smart, she'll quit sassing," her momma replied. But Tessa Lee could tell she wasn't mad. Just worried. She could see worry in the way her momma tapped that cigarette at the edge of the window sill, trying to keep the ashes neat and short and manageable. Not a bit like laid-back Goose who let his ashes grow long and fade to white, then drop down warm onto his hairy belly.
Goose listened to country and sang with all the yodelers and told stories about going on alligator hunts when he was a boy. After a while, Travis fell asleep, and when they stopped for gas somewhere in Tennessee, Tessa Lee's momma was left holding him while she went in the store to help Goose tote out the Yoo-hoos. When the man behind the counter said, "Your little girl's gonna be a heartbreaker," Goose said, "Already is," and winked at Tessa Lee, and she trotted out proud with the drinks and decided it wouldn't be so bad to have a daddy named after a bird.
"Gotta gear down," Goose said as they went up a hill, and by then they were in the mountains and gearing down a lot. Tessa Lee adjusted her legs so that he could work the gear-shift. The backs of her thighs sweated against the vinyl seat, and when she tried to move them, a little bit of her skin got pinched in a place where the seat had cracked and the foam poked through. Goose jiggled gears against the insides of her knees, and Tessa Lee looked at her momma, who took tiny quiet gasps of air and twiddled her fingers through Travis's curls until his head looked like a hundred black fins.
They stopped again at a truck-stop off a busy highway, a bright yellow building where they sold ponchos and fireworks and bumperstickers that Tessa Lee wasn't allowed to read. Her momma yanked her away from the stickers and paid for their bags of potato chips, along with some handy-wipes for the truck. When they got back out, Goose had moved the truck to the rear of the building, behind three big metal dumpsters that sat there like a row of rhinoceroses, minus their horns. He was changing the license plates.
"What do we need new license plates for?" Tessa Lee asked.
"Shhh," he said, then whispered, "We're in a new state, gotta have new plates." Then he looked at her momma and said, "Load'em up, Sheila."
"Come on," her momma said, but Tessa Lee was already hunched down next to Goose.
"These plates aren't new," she said.
"Sure they are," Goose answered, looking over his shoulder and then giving all four screws another quick twist. "They're new to us. Hop on in the truck, now. We gotta scoot."
So Tessa Lee climbed inside and soon they were on the road, the red line of the speedometer climbing up to the middle, then pointing all the way to her momma's bony knees.
She thought about those license plates as she ate her chips, then while she sucked the barbecue powder off her fingers and nibbled the orange outlines from the edges of her nails. She thought about those plates all splattered up with bug-bits, little flecks of bugs from far away places. Finally she asked, "What did you do with our old license plates?"
Her momma sighed and said, "Honey, Goose just swapped plates with somebody headed for where we came from. Now their license plates will match where they're going, and ours'll match where we're going."
"We going to Massachusetts?" Tessa Lee asked.
"Absolutely," said Goose.
That night at the state park campground, they built a fire and had hotdogs without buns, and then marshmallows, and her momma said, "Isn't this fun?" and Travis laughed and ran around spitting on ant-beds. He had marshmallow on his face, and the dirt stuck to it and gave him a little gritty beard. When Tessa Lee pointed it out, everybody laughed, even the couple at the next campsite with just a one-room tent.
Goose dug through a cooler and handed her momma a beer. Tessa Lee cut her eyes and said, "You promised," but her momma looked away and said, "We're on vacation." Then she popped the tab and made the beer hiss. Even after Tessa Lee and Travis were inside the tent, trying to sleep with a mess of mosquitoes and no-see-ums, Tessa Lee listened for the hissing of beers, one after the other.
And then it was late, but too hot to sleep. Travis was asleep, but not Tessa Lee. His diaper needed changing, but the diapers were out in the truck, and Tessa Lee's momma and Goose were whispering and laughing in a way that let her know that she shouldn't go out there. Then they moved to the tent, and Tessa Lee thought she should go get a diaper. But Goose and her momma were rustling the walls, so she decided to be still and keep her eyes closed. She'd never been in a tent before, much less a two-room tent, but she wished the walls were thicker and didn't flutter so much.
She kept her eyes closed tight and listened to the swishing walls and the smacky mouth-noises, wet and sticky, and she told herself that Goose was just eating blueberries. It sounded like blueberries popping into his mouth, squishy as he sucked on them, and she wondered where they'd gotten blueberries from and why nobody had offered her any.
The next day when she woke up, her momma was gone, and Goose was gone, and the truck was gone. She thought at first that Travis was gone too, but then she saw him wandering around a couple of campsites over, and when she got there, he was licking a pine tree.
"Get your mouth off that tree," she said, and slapped him easy like her momma would do.
"I like how tree tastes," Travis said and kept on licking.
He was wearing gray shorts over his diaper -- a clean one -- but no shirt. Somebody had written a phone number on his back, in big black magic-marker letters. Tessa Lee looked at the number and didn't know at first what it meant. She took his hand and led him back to the tent and found a box of Cheerios beside their bags of clothes.
"Is that your phone number?" asked the woman at the next campsite. "Whose number is that?"
"I don't know," Tessa Lee said. "Maybe it's the place where Momma and Goose went for breakfast. Probably wanted me to call when we woke up."
But she knew they weren't coming back. They'd skedaddled without her. The clothes in the bags belonged to her and to Travis. Her momma's clothes weren't there. Her momma's clothes had been packed in a duffle bag with the word "Foxy" written in rhinestones on the side, and the duffle bag was gone. The only thing she'd left behind was the two-roomed tent and her firefly cloak, which Tessa Lee and Travis had used for covers the night before. Tessa Lee put it on over her pajamas and didn't worry too much about dragging it through the dirt.
A security guard sat with them at a picnic table and waited, and then a police officer came, and a woman who drew hopscotch squares on the ground for nobody to jump in. Travis went inside the tent and cried until the policeman let him blow the siren on his car. Tessa Lee just paced around the campsite, looking for a note that might have blown away in the wind. There wasn't any wind to speak of, but she thought maybe it had been windy before she woke up, and she checked the back of a BB-bat wrapper she found in the grass, and she studied a receipt half-burned in the fire pit, but there were no words from her momma.
Finally her grandparents drove up in a white van, but since Tessa Lee didn't know yet who they were, she most certainly did not go hug their necks or try to pet the little dog who hung his head out the window and yowled. She wrapped the cloak tight around her and sucked on a strand of her hair, and when the woman who turned out to be her granny asked if she knew where her momma was headed, she didn't mention anything about Massachusetts.